Beijing's Labor Pains

Why the conventional coverage of China may be missing the most interesting story of all.

HONG KONG—Western media coverage of China tends to be dominated by two competing narratives. The first is all about economics. China, it contends, is an epochal success story. The economy is booming and national wealth is on the rise. The Chinese themselves are overwhelmingly satisfied with their lot. There's nowhere to go but up.

The second focuses on politics. China is in the grip of communist party dictatorship. People have no democratic rights. Everywhere you turn, there is social turmoil -- seething popular anger over corruption, environmental degradation, illegal land grabs, and summary arrests. Something's got to give.

To be sure, both of these interpretations contain grains of truth. But it turns out that there's another way of comprehending the reality of modern-day China -- one that captures the contradictions of the place and allows them to co-exist.

All you have to do is pay a visit to the Hong Kong offices of China Labor Bulletin (CLB), a non-governmental organization founded in 1994 by activist Han Dongfang. Han and his colleagues are pushing hard for grassroots change in China -- and they're doing it openly. But they are also doing it within the existing system, not against it. "We don't see any of them as our enemies," says Han, referring to officials of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party. "We see all people we're dealing with as social partners."

The picture that comes through as you listen to Han looks something like this: Today's Chinese workplace is a mess, as one might expect. Safety conditions are terrible. Work-related illnesses are rife. Employs often hire workers without issuing formal contracts, making it near-impossible for wronged employees to fight back. Confronted with these problems, government agencies often look away or collude with the offending companies' management.

Yet China also has a full-fledged body of labor law, a comprehensive court system, and a growing army of private lawyers. That's where CLB comes in. It provides legal aid to embattled workers, helping them to navigate the intricacies of the labor code and urging them to assert their right to collective bargaining, up to and including the right to strike. Demands for the creation of independent trade unions are notably absent from CLB literature, presumably because unions would pose a direct and provocative challenge to the Communist Party's monopoly power.

Han's organization also defends imprisoned lawyers and labor organizers. It publicizes cases of employer malfeasance and advocates legal reform. One of the group's most potent tools is its thrice-weekly radio program, beamed into China by Radio Free Asia. (The Chinese authorities block CLB's website on the mainland, but staffers say the group manages to quietly advertise its services on other sites.) Workers call in or send emails explaining their legal travails. Then, Han responds on the air, explaining the cases, discussing possible legal strategies, and sometimes actively intervening.

Last summer, for example, a group of 170 construction workers got in touch. The men explained that they were suffering from silicosis -- a lung condition also known as potter's rot that's caused by inhaling silicone dust -- contracted at a Shenzhen building site. Local authorities had stymied their efforts to obtain compensation for their obviously work-related affliction. So, CLB staffers drew up a legal memo on behalf of the workers  that the men used to press their claims against the Shenzhen Labor Bureau. To everyone's surprise, the hitherto recalcitrant authorities offered the men a "humanitarian fund" -- giving the workers cash without admitting any legal accountability for the workplace injury. Some happily accepted.

Others, though, decided to press on with a lawsuit against the regional labor office. With the help of a CLB-provided lawyer, they accused the office of neglecting its oversight duties. "At first the workers were begging for help," says Han. "But now they see that the government bears responsibility [and] that they have rights. They've made a big jump -- now they're much closer to being citizens." It is all part of CLB's strategy to strengthen the rule of law one case at a time. "Many little differences can make a big step," says Han.

It all adds up to a powerful case for the virtues of incremental change -- a point, Han acknowledges, that has been known to fuel disagreement between him and his erstwhile companions from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. (Han was working to set up communist China's first independent trade union in a corner of the square when the government sent in the troops.) Not long after the protests were bloodily crushed, Han was arrested and sentenced to a two-year jail term. After his 1992 release, the authorities deported him to Hong Kong, where he set up CLB.

The Party persists in refusing him the right to return home. Even so, the government in Beijing tolerates most of CLB's activities on the mainland. "Other activists tell me, ‘You should be fighting dictatorship. That should be your job,'" says Han. "But I think that we have a duty to help Chinese workers improve their lives, to make them as confident as possible."

He sketches a typical scenario: "A coal miner has just died. He left behind a wife, old parents, a kid. What do you want me to tell his wife? Go out and overthrow the [Communist Party]? Or, ‘Here are your rights vis-à-vis the employer. I'll help you get a lawyer.' So I don't argue with the Chinese government. I don't argue about my right to reform my country."

In 2007 and 2008, CLB provided legal support in 600 cases. It won 95 percent of them. In modern-day China, says Han, that is incontrovertible evidence of positive change -- as well as a sobering indication of just how badly Chinese employers abuse their workers.

It also demonstrates that the Chinese authorities are increasingly recognizing the usefulness of keeping labor disputes labor disputes, rather than allowing them to metastasize into political conflicts. Ten years ago, if workers went on strike, the Communist Party sent in the police and threw the organizers in jail. Now, the Chinese government is more likely to send in a labor mediator. "Now labor unhappiness is aimed at the boss," he argues. "Now the government is no longer the target."

CLB's website is filled with hair-raising tales of cruelty, exploitation, and injustice. But you can also find intriguing signals of change. In 2008, China's civil courts accepted 93 percent more labor disputes than in 2007, for a total of 280,000. A sample headline: "A 25 year-old university graduate with Hepatitis B has, for the first time in China, successfully sued a hospital for violating his right to privacy after it gave the results of his blood test to a prospective employer." And three months ago, a long article in the magazine Liaowang, published by none other the state-owned Xinhua news agency, explained why the country needs to guarantee collective bargaining rights.

The problem is that China's pervasive corruption is eroding people's trust in the law. Popular frustration about the issue is one of the driving forces behind the rising signs of civil unrest around China. By one estimate, there were 127,467 "mass incidents" in China in 2008. In one government poll last year, 75 percent of respondents cited corruption as the number one problem facing the country. It's easy to see how the resulting cynicism could poison the country's future.

So the tug-of-war continues, and the stories keep rolling in. The bigger story is a long way from over. Stay tuned.

China Photos/Getty Images


Korea's Golden Girl

Meet Kim Yu-na, the world No.1 in women's figure skating and -- really -- the hope of a nation.

When the world's top figure skater takes to the ice Tuesday night for the short program and Thursday for the long, it won't be just the Olympic judges scrutinizing her. Kim Yu-na is South Korea's pride and obsession, the country's first front-runner for a marquee Olympic event. Dubbing her the "national little sister" -- a term akin to "America's sweetheart" -- Koreans have been crazy about the elegant teenager for years, collectively holding their breaths every time she launches herself into the air for one of her monster jumps. For many, her dominance signals nothing less than Korea's arrival onto the world stage as a cultural and economic power, after years of chasing its powerhouse Asian neighbors and the West.

Koreans have been obsessed with sports for decades, cheering on the country's athletes with something approaching religious fervor -- see footage of Koreans supporting the Red Devils at the 2002 World Cup, for instance. They become roused when Korea faces down Japan, its occupier from 1910 to 1945 (the competition between Kim and Japanese skating superstars Mao Asada and Miki Ando is particularly fierce).

But Koreans are especially jazzed about Kim and her success because of figure skating's domestic novelty and international glamour. Only 20 years ago, Korea barely had any money for Olympic training. During the games in the 1990s, the country's athletes wore the stoic expressions and utilitarian bowl haircuts of its post-Soviet neighbors. For years, Korean athletes did best in badminton, table tennis, archery, and judo -- workhorse sports that suggested more familiarity with bug juice than champagne. Even today, the country's best sport is women's golf -- with a cavalcade of brutally efficient hard hitters who don't quite win the big Nike contracts.

Korea did not even send a skater to the Turin Olympics in 2006. Now, it has a constantly beaming, individualistic, artistic, lithe, telegenic global superstar in the Winter Olympics' most-watched banner event. What makes Kim's success all the more remarkable is that she became the world's best -- some say perhaps the best ever -- despite the lack of a developed figure-skating infrastructure in Korea. Her parents paid for her training until a few years ago, when Kim commenced her personal gold rush in international competition and garnered notice in her home country. (Korea places great emphasis on child-rearing, and Kim's mother, Park Mi-hee, has become a lionized national hero as well.)

"Koreans long had the impression that figure skating was an unapproachable domain dominated by blond, white people. [Kim] shocked Koreans by showing that it was possible, and it made her an icon," says Hong Suk-jun, the sports editor of Chosun Ilbo, one of Seoul's biggest papers. Now, Korea's pride is plastered on foreign papers.

It is hard to describe just how nuts Korea is for Kim: the number of endorsements, the saturation of television coverage, and the volume of magazines sold with her face on the cover. Brian Orser -- Kim's coach and the person credited with turning her from gangly teen into gamine contender -- compares Kim's popularity in Korea to that of Princess Diana in Britain. The truth is: She might be bigger. One of her nicknames is "Queen Yu-na."

Since her debut in senior international competition four years ago, Kim has never missed the medals podium. She has been beaten just once in the past two seasons. And, she holds the world record for the short, free skate, and combined scores under the ISU Judging System.

But Kim's artistry excites Koreans as much as her athletic prowess. Her short program includes a feisty groove to a James Bond medley; her more emotive free skate to Scheherazade has been known to send bleachers full of Korean fans into tears. International judges and the elite skating press frequently cite her for exceptional expression, not just big triple lutzes. And the Korean media frequently lauds her intangible "it" factor (ggi in Korean), gushing that she skates not just with impeccable hard-honed technique, but with beauty and passion. In other words, she busts the stereotype of Asian prodigies as proficient but somehow bloodless.

"Figure skating is a cultural performance sport. It is unlike the 100-meter sprint. You can't participate in it if you're not culturally prepared," explains Song Doo-heon, who writes a popular blog about figure skating and Kim. He likens her contention for an Olympic gold to "a cultural coming-out of sorts for Korea."

After years of famine, war, and division, Korea is definitely coming out. The country was once best known for supplying low-cost electronics and textiles to Americans. Now, it helps bail out Wall Street banks. Having lived in fear of North Korea, South Korea is now confident enough to implement a "Sunshine Policy" of reconciliation toward its communist sibling. Having languished in the shadows of China and Japan as the "other East Asian country" for much of the 20th century, Korea now holds major cultural sway in the region.

Today, Korea literally shapes Asia's face with its world-leading plastic surgery industry. Despite the language barrier, Korean youth culture is Asia's most exported, with superstars like the singer Rain, actor Bae Yong-joon, and a plethora of boy bands and girl bands flooding the Asian market.

And now it has Kim, the popular and photogenic star who on Thursday might well bring Korea home its first major gold medal. If Kim wins, expect the reaction in Korea to be volcanic.

Chung Sung-Jun, Harry How, and Jeff Gross/Getty Images